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It looked like reveille, like Dunkirk, like a druid sunrise service. Try to picture it: four hundred British birders flanking a wet hedge all draped in identical oilskin jackets; all shod in regulation Wellies; all adorned with German optics. I was impressed. A similar number of American birders wouldn't wear anything more universal than bored expressions.
The sage-colored assemblage, patiently waiting for some skulking, feathered miscreant, would have been the picture of uniformity except for one magnificent incongruity. Deep in the rear ranks was a single splash of color—a robin's-egg blue (i.e., American Robin) Gortex jacket. The parka, it turned out, was worn by another "Yank" birder named Mindy. Mindy was from Indiana. She couldn't, she explained, find any birders in the United States so she came to the U.K. for company. She said this with a straight face.
If Mindy was imprinted on waxed cotton jackets, I can understand how she failed to find any birders in places like Point Pelee in May and Cape May Point in September, but this brings up a good point. Birding garb here in the colonies is pretty eclectic. There is nothing that might be called the universal birding uniform, nothing that distinguishes birders from society's rank and file.
There are birders who look as if they were cut right out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue and birders who look as if they were cut down from a garden stake overlooking the peas. There are birders who dress like part of an Everest assault team and birders who dress like penitents with ten years to run on a thirty-year sentence. Take away their binoculars and how would you know a birder if you saw one? How would you distinguish a birder from, say, a bag lady?
"Are you kidding me?" my friend Patty observed. "You can pick out a birder a mile away." Patty is a waitress in Cape May, New Jersey, and since birders are notoriously lousy tippers, it is incumbent upon waitresses to recognize them on sight.
"OK," I said, sipping grandly from a frosted mug, "you tell me. How can you distinguish birders from regular patrons?"
"Well, first, birders wear outlandish hats and they never take them off when they go indoors."
"Huh," I said into my mug, suddenly conscious of the CMBO visor festooned with American Birding Association convention pins that was perched on my noggin. "What else?"
"And they drink cheap beer or straight liquor. All the tourists drink piña coladas, pink squirrels, grasshoppers, or strawberry daiquiris."
"Or wine," I said defensively (wondering what the hell a pink squirrel was). "Sometimes we drink wine."
"Or wine," Patty admitted. "House wine. By the glass. And they always ask the price. If a birder is wearing a jacket, they drape it over a chair or just let it fall on the floor—never hang them up. Half the time they don't even take them off."
"Nonbirders don't ever keep their jackets on?" I challenged. "Well, if they do," Patty replied, "nonbirders have started 'wearing jackets that look like quilts stitched out of bird club patches. Cripes, I've seen double-sashed Girl Scouts sporting fewer badges than some of the birders who wander in here."
"OK, OK," I soothed. "What about the rest of it? Shoes? Pants?"
"Scuffed Rockports or running shoes," she replied unhesitantly. "Beige slacks or jeans. The slacks and Rockports are a combination; so are the runners and jeans. There's never any crossing over."
She hesitated a moment, thinking hard. "No designer jeans," she added, "and most of the denim looks like it's spent half its life on a towel rack in some gas station restroom. The laces on the running shoes have been spliced several times. You can see toes on at least one foot."
"And," she added, "it's a good thing birds can't smell. Most of the sneakers are so ripe they could curl the whiskers on a sewer rat."
"Ha!" I challenged. "By that description, how would you distinguish a birder from a bag lady? From a bum?"
Patty reared up over the bar like a lioness over a kill. "Because," she shouted triumphantly, "bag ladies carry all their stuff in bags. Birders cram all their junk into a couple of dozen pockets and pouches hanging off their belts."
"No camouflaged fatigue pants?" I inquired cautiously.
"Uh-uh," Patty said. "Too stylish."
"The women? Never."
"Well," I said, grudgingly convinced, "I guess you can pick 'em out all right."
"Want another?" she said, indicating the mug.
"No thanks," I said, reaching into my pocket and depositing a measured amount of U.S. coinage next to my empty plate. Patty stared solemnly at the meager tithing and shook her head. "Yep," she affirmed, "you're a birder all right."
It would take something keener than the human eye to detect anything but leaves and shadows. It would take even more than the eye of a hunting hawk to pick out the small, olive-colored bird perched within the canopy—unless the bird moved. Movement catches a hunting eye like a flare on a moonless night.
There was no shortage of hunting eyes, either. Overhead, a river of Sharp-shinned Hawks was flowing south—hundreds, thousands. Weaving a course through the maze of branches were other Sharp-shinneds whose focus had shifted from migration to active hunting.
Hide and seek is an old game with Sharp-shinneds. As the astonishing number of raptors overhead attests, they are pretty accomplished gamesters.
In an adjacent field, several Northern Harriers were patrolling for incautious meadow voles or songbirds. Harriers tend to be pretty eclectic about these things. On scattered perches, half a dozen Merlins and one very hungry male Peregrine surveyed the landscape and over every likely looking patch of vegetation an American Kestrel hovered.
Instruments of vireo demise seemed everywhere. About the only thing that the vireo didn't have to worry about was the immature Bald Eagle perched on a nearby snag. Eagles are not very adept at catching birds whose weight is measured in grams.
The hard truth was that the woodlands north of Cape May Point, New Jersey, are a very rough neighborhood for songbirds who seek to maintain their membership among the ranks of living things. Short of digging a burrow or slipping into a flak jacket (both of which vireos are ill equipped to do) staying hidden and immobile was not a bad strategy for survival. In fact, as strategies go, it had only one major failing. It didn't address the vireo's food needs—which were severe.
Migration is energy taxing. Feeding is a simple way of dealing with this problem, but feeding means having to move—which given the circumstances was not an attractive prospect. It was certainly a dilemma, a paradox.
The bird, the immature Red-eyed Vireo, didn't have to analyze the problems she faced or devise a solution. The bird already knew everything she needed to know about the problem, including how to deal with it. She knew because she was the product of a long line of survivors who had dealt with this problem and succeeded. The prize for winning the game is the right to pass on the secret of your success to the next generation.
Part of the bird's success was tied to plumage. The vireo's wings and back were olive green, the color of leaves in shade. Immobile, the bird was just another dark patch in a collage whose medium was leaf and shadow.
The bird's underparts were pale yellow-white, but with the bird hunkered down on a limb, out of direct sunlight, there was nothing to distinguish her from the many splashes of sunlight among the leaves, nothing to catch and hold a hunting eye.
The effectiveness of the bird's disguise had been put to the test several times already since she had dropped into the willowoak shortly after dawn. Nearly a dozen Sharp-shinneds had passed within ten feet. Two had momentarily perched in the same tree. One hunting Sharp-shinned had surprised and captured an immature Blackpoll Warbler that was foraging on the branch the vireo rested upon.
As the vireo contemplated her options (if "contemplated" is the right word) another Sharp-shinned Hawk approached. The vireo watched the agile predator weave a path through the branches, its long tail maneuvering the bird through air the way a rudder moves a boat in the water. Barely a leaf was troubled as the bird slipped through the leafy maze.
If the vireo was immobile before, she was paralyzed now. The Sharp-shinned passed within four feet, and for one terrible moment, the vireo could see her reflection in the yellow gaze of the hawk. But the vireo went unrecognized. The disguise had passed another test and another round in the game of hide and seek went to the vireo.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk moved on in search of birds less adept (or less fortunate).
The end of immediate danger seemed to galvanize the vireo to action. Her food needs had finally gotten the upper hand, and although movement was risky, failing to refuel was suicide. Any vireo that didn't reach the tropics before cold weather was a failure and the penalty for failure is simple. Failures don't get to breed in the spring.
The bird made a single, short hop to a lower limb. She didn't flutter. She didn't even open her wings. She simply dropped, the way a leaf might—dropping and catching up on a lower branch. Very simple. Very natural. There, she waited.
Nothing. No blur of wings. No yellow eyes. No clutching talons. Another success story.
The bird moved again. A lateral hop to an adjacent limb. Nothing again.
The bird's slow, stop-and-go movements reveal another secret to vireo success. When movement is unavoidable, don't make any sudden moves. Above all, avoid any movement that does not appear natural.
Here's another little tip, a fine point of survival: Pick your perches with care. A little shadow never hurts.
Vireos are careful, methodical feeders, using stealth to buffer risk. Other birds employ other strategies. Some flock to lose themselves in the anonymity of the pack. Some rely on superior reflexes or speed. There are many strategies, but they all have at least one thing in common—they all work well enough to maintain the species.
Does this mean that the vireo had nothing to worry about? No. You see, Sharp-shinned Hawks are a successful species, too.
The young vireo saw a fat green caterpillar hidden under a leaf. Its green color was almost a perfect replication of the top side of the leaf—but unfortunately for the caterpillar, not the paler underside of the leaf. Vireos love caterpillars.
The vireo foraged outward toward the edge of the tree, toward the sunlight. It was a cool morning. Insects, as coldblooded creatures, were more common and more active where the temperatures were higher.
The vireo found another caterpillar and ate it. She missed two more whose camouflage defeated her eyes, then located a third. Pickings were pretty slim.
The feeding activity of a dozen other birds (including several vireos) attracted our bird. Several species of migrating songbirds were gorging themselves on a multicolored stand of porcelain berries not far away.
Vireos love porcelain berries, too.
In one sense, the risk was greater since the berries were in plain view, exposed to sunlight and hunting eyes. But the returns were greater, too. The bird would be able to feed quickly (reducing risk) and since food was plentiful, she wouldn't have to move about much (also reducing risk). It seemed like a fair trade-off, and besides, the hawks appeared to be flying much higher than they had earlier. Most were migrating; few seemed intent on hunting now.
The vireo flew across the clearing, landed amid the berries, and began to feed. More birds, noting the activity, joined the feeding flock. It was too much to hope that this kind of activity would go unnoticed forever.
The Cooper's Hawk, another bushwacker and one that might be likened to the big brother of a Sharp-shinned, ducked into the canopy to come at the birds from behind. A Blue Jay screamed a warning. Vireos and warblers scattered.
The vireo, intent on evading the Cooper's Hawk, didn't see the diving Sharp-shinned until it was too late. The vireo managed one desperate barrel roll which the Sharpy followed easily. Then, with reflexes too fast to contemplate, the Sharp-shinned reached out and closed the vireo in a net of talons.
The Cooper's Hawk hit the Sharp-shinned with enough force to break the raptor's grasp, and send the vireo spiraling upward. She righted herself and fled for the protecting veil of leaves, narrowly evading another Sharp-shinned en route. The Cooper's Hawk, flying heavily, carried the hapless Sharp-shinned Hawk into the trees.
Luck plays a crucial role in success, too—both good luck and bad.
Five minutes later, her panic over, the vireo was once again feeding on the porcelain berries. Life must go on.
On the tip of a branch, just over her head, she spied another caterpillar. She stretched to reach it but came up short. She tried again and failed again. She tried once more, fluttering her wings to give herself the extra boost she needed.
The wings caught the sunlight and, against the dark backdrop of the leaves, they flickered like a flare on a moonless night. The bird opened her bill. Success was almost hers.
Vireos love caterpillars. As much as Sharp-shinneds love vireos.